Owners of 70 homes in Sandy-damaged areas of Suffolk County are asking the state to buy their properties so the land can be returned to nature and serve as a buffer against future storms. The 70 parcels are among 613 flood-prone Long Island properties targeted by the state for voluntary buyouts.
More than one-third of the total -- 234 -- are in Lindenhurst. In Flanders, a hamlet in the western reaches of Southampton Town, the owners of 156 properties were invited to apply, and in Mastic Beach the owners of 107 parcels are eligible. Some homeowners in Bayport, Oakdale, Patchogue, Sayville and Yaphank also are eligible for buyouts.
The maximum price is $729,750 for a single-family home and $934,200 for a two-family. The state expects to make conditional offers to the first 25 applicants this month. State officials said it will take 12 to 16 weeks for deals to close.
There did not seem to be widespread interest in buyouts in Nassau County, which is why no buyouts were offered there, state officials said.
Some of the property owners were divided about whether they plan to take the state up on its offer. A few said they would consider a high enough price. Others said their love of waterfront life is too powerful, or the storm damage was not severe enough to scare them away. One said he would have considered a buyout, but he already is paying to elevate his home.
"I'm going to listen to their offer," said Shelley Murphy, a retired teacher who applied for a buyout of the small cottage she owns in Mastic Beach, across an unpaved road from the Great South Bay. If the money is not enough to tempt her, and if flood insurance becomes unaffordable, she would drop the insurance and "just stay and hope we don't have another Sandy."
Murphy currently rents out the cottage but said she and her husband, Michael, would like to live there after their children are grown. She said she is open to a buyout because her annual flood insurance premium will nearly double to $2,710 in December.
A tepid response
Long Islanders' tepid response to the buyout program contrasts sharply with that of Staten Islanders in the Oakwood Beach section, a neighborhood of aging bungalows abutting wetlands. There, all but two of the 300 property owners have applied for buyouts, state officials said.
Oakwood Beach has struggled with flooding for decades. Residents began talking about buyouts as early as 1992. The neighborhood was stuck by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, and then Sandy's floodwaters laid waste to the area last Oct. 29, killing three people.
"We were completely united in wanting a buyout," said Joseph Tirone, who owns a home there and organized residents to advocate for a buyout. "Irene knocked everybody on their heels -- then when Sandy came, it was a knockout punch."
The state's NY Rising Housing Recovery Program promises to pay eligible homeowners in Suffolk County and on Staten Island what their homes were worth before Sandy hit, plus a 10 percent premium. That incentive -- what the state calls an enhanced buyout -- is meant to entice enough homeowners that the state can amass land to serve as natural storm buffers.
In letters dated Aug. 26, homeowners were told that their properties were chosen for voluntary buyouts because they are located in areas "highly vulnerable to damage from future natural disasters." Parcels were chosen based on federal flood maps and local residents' perceived interest in buyouts.
"You want to make sure you get a community where people are likely to embrace this," said Seth Diamond, New York's director of storm recovery. "As more people believe that it's real and see that there's good value for your home . . . more people will come forward."
Diamond said the huge response on Staten Island shows the state's buyout offers are fair.
Getting strong participation on Long Island will be crucial to the program's success here, said David Godschalk, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He has studied buyout programs and calls them "the most effective way to mitigate against future hazards."
"The difficulty is when you have a block of 10 houses and only six of them sell," he said. "Then you get these gaptoothed land-use arrangements where you have empty lots between existing houses, and you can't very well turn those into a park. So it works the best when there's 80 or 90 percent participation or even 100 percent, so you clean out entire areas."
The state intends to knock down the bought-out homes, then turn the land over to the county, the municipality or a not-for-profit group to be turned into parkland or a natural area. The program is funded by the $1.71 billion first installment of federal block grants from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help residents recover from Sandy, Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which struck upstate in 2011. As much as $400 million could go to buyouts.
"Taking someone who is in that area and allowing them opportunity to relocate, that is a huge benefit to them, and that also reduces the demand for local and state emergency services," said Rebecca Sinclair, buyout coordinator for NY Rising. "They have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say, 'I'm done, I don't want to deal with this anymore.' "
Rodney Tramantano, 62, a heavy-equipment operator whose Mastic Beach home took on 30 inches of water from Sandy's surge, is eligible for a buyout. If the offer is high enough, "I'd say 'Thank you very much,' put it in a suitcase and walk away," said Tramantano. "Who knows what they would give me -- that's the problem."
Others said they threw out the buyout letters.
"I love it here, it gets in your soul," said Scott Keicher, 52, a carpenter who still is repairing storm damage to his 1920s wooden waterfront cottage in Lindenhurst. "I want my grandchildren to grow up on the bay front and be fishermen."
His neighbor Wayne Rakshys, 63, said he would have considered a buyout if the invitation to apply had arrived sooner. In late July, Rakshys signed a contract to elevate his three-bedroom waterfront home in the Venetian Shores section of Lindenhurst to nearly 11 feet above sea level. He did not receive the state's buyout offer until early September.
Rakshys said he would have liked to move to a one-level house in Westbury, though his wife is devoted to living on the water.
"It's very frustrating that everybody took so long," he said, standing in the shadow of his jacked-up home. "It would just be a lot easier to buy a ready-made house that's ready to move in, than to go through this."
Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) said the state took too long to roll out the buyout program. "I know this was an unusual storm, I know it was difficult," she said. "But I would like to think if this ever happens again there would be better systems in place to tackle the problems in the first six months, especially for the people who are doing the buyouts."
Barbara Brancaccio, state Office of Storm Recovery spokeswoman, said the program got underway as soon as HUD approved the federal aid in April.
In one potential stumbling block for the program, many homeowners in some Suffolk buyout areas lack equity in their properties, so buyouts might not provide them with enough cash to relocate.
In Mastic Beach, for example, 19 percent of homes with mortgages either were in foreclosure or had been referred to bank attorneys as of September, according to Lender Processing Services, a national data firm in Jacksonville, Fla. The foreclosure rate is nearly 9 percent in Riverhead, which includes the Flanders section, and 8 percent in Lindenhurst, the firm reported.
By contrast, in the ZIP code that includes Staten Island's Oakwood Beach, the foreclosure rate is 4.1 percent, the firm reported.
Mastic Beach Mayor Bill Biondi said the village would suffer a "devastating" hit to its tax base if many residents sell their homes to the state.
"Let's get the houses raised, let's get the people back," he said.
But Browning said, "The cost to the village, the county, the town if there was another storm would be higher than the tax loss on the properties, and there is an opportunity for Mastic Beach Village to create tourism to the area with the beautiful wildlife and natural landscape that they have there."
One morning last week, Shelley Murphy stood outside her house. The only sounds were bird calls, the wind rustling through the tall reeds and lapping bay water.
"I guess it sounds like a positive thing," she said of her buyout offer. "But what they'd be doing is turning Mastic Beach Village into a ghost town. There's a community here."
With Sarah Crichton
HOW IT WORKS
The state targeted 613 properties in eight Suffolk County communities for buyouts; under a separate program, homeowners in other storm-damaged areas can ask the state to acquire their homes.
-- Homeowners were notified by letters dated Aug. 26, sent by certified mail, that they are eligible.
-- They get pre-Sandy market value, plus a 10 percent incentive.
-- They can qualify for an additional 5 percent incentive if they buy a new home in Suffolk County.
-- Once purchased by the state, the land can never be built on again.
-- Homeowners must prove their homes were "substantially damaged" -- that is, the house received damage of 50 percent or more of its pre-storm value -- and that they are in a 100-year flood plain as defined by the local flood plain administrator.
-- No incentives are offered.
-- If the state acquires a property through this program, it can be redeveloped in a more storm-resistant way.
-- To apply, go to stormrecovery.ny.gov or call 855-NYS-SANDY (855-697-7263)
Source: NY Rising Housing Recovery Program